Spielberg's "War Horse" Handsomely Made, Beyond Sappy

War Horse (2011)
146 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +
"Remarkable" and "magnificent" get thrown around a lot to distinguish Joey, the majestic steed at center stage in Steven Spielberg's epic crowd-pleaser "War Horse." The same should be said of the impassioned filmmaker's own interpretation of the Tony-winning stage production, itself based on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's book. Unfortunately, like an A-level student handing in C-level work, "War Horse" is dutifully and shamelessly sentimental, unremarkable Spielberg. It's a nice "Black Beauty"-meets-"Saving Private Ryan" story, technically well-crafted and sumptuously mounted into a grand tribute to old-fashioned, melodramatic '50s Hollywood filmmaking. In addition to being nostalgic of John Ford's stylistic trademarks, "War Horse" is still distinctly classic Spielberg, from the sweeping crane shots, to the dramatic lighting, to the John Williams music score. 
English newcomer Jeremy Irvine, making his film debut, is overly earnest but timelessly handsome in a boyish Ethan Hawke-y way. He plays Albert Narracott, a Devon farm boy who devotes his time to a plough horse that his drunken, limping father, Ted (Peter Mullan), overpaid for to plow the family's field. His mother, Rose (Emily Watson), is not pleased, but Albert develops a warm kinship to the horse, which he calls Joey, and then trains the animal into a plough. After a rainstorm wipes out their turnip field and the family still can't afford their rent to the landlord (David Thewlis), Ted sells Joey to the military for World War I. The horse's new charge, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), promises Albert that he'll return Joey to his care after the war. But the war against Germany changes plans, as Joey gets handed off from two young German brothers that desert their front, to a sickly but brave French girl living with her protective grandfather. Will Joey make his way back home to Albert? Uh, do you want to cry?
Author Morpurgo tried adapting his book into a screenplay from the viewpoint of Joey (as it was in the source material), but surrendered and saw it as an unfilmable feat. Lee Hall ("Billy Elliot") and Richard Curtis ("Love Actually") ended up co-writing the screenplay, and the episodic structure just plods this overlong story along. It lacks the necessary emotional investment as Joey gallops between hands, leaving the only constant to be, of course, Joey. He can't talk, but Joey is certainly remarkable because everyone says so. 
For a play-based film shot on location in England and on studio soundstages, "War Horse" notably has a wide scope. Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's go-to director of photography, opens with stunningly beautiful overhead shots of richly green land and later crane shots on the battlefield that belong in a museum. The first war scene, a cavalry charge in France, is suspensefully staged with a cloud of doom. Another scene, one of the best, is emotionally effective in its grim beauty: Joey gallops through the trenches of No Man's Land until becoming entangled in barbed wire and then freed by a British and German soldier who must shed their wartime tension to work together. But far too often, the flutes and brass instruments of Williams' needlessly overstated score drown out genuine emotion and pour on the high-fructose corn syrup when we didn't need the extra help. Truth be told, Spielberg has never been known for subtlety, and surely this isn't a small film going for subtlety, but it might have made the drama more stirring. Even the tearjerker-ready conclusion hammers home the crocodile tears with its overblown closing image: reuniting characters in the foreground of a burning, orange sunset, which feels like the "Gone With the Wind" set.
All fourteen equine actors playing Joey are stalwart and convey soul in their eyes, but "War Horse" is so laborious and overtly manipulative in its emotional response that only saps will truly be moved. It's watchable and full of postcard-pretty scenery, but those who cried puddles in the sublimely magical "E.T." might not necessarily give in to Spielberg's latest string-pulling.